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Once Aristocratic, Then Neglected, South Park Blooms Again in Tech’s Backyard

SoMa's soon-to-be-revitalized green space gets reacquainted with its roots.

 South Park, SoMa. Fletcher Studio


It’s 1854, and the beneficiaries of San Francisco’s first big boom, the gold rush, are looking for a place to settle—somewhere close to downtown but expansive enough to reflect their aristocrat ambitions. Taking a cue from exclusive neighborhoods in London and New York City, they reserve a block-long oval of open space and build their mansions around it. The lot is surrounded by a fence to which only they have a key. Inside is a grassy knoll, a place for families to spend time outdoors. It’s the first park in the burgeoning city of San Francisco. One hundred and sixty-one years—and several booms—later, South Park remains ground zero for San Francisco’s enterprising soul. Dropbox is building its second office there, and Weebly is down the block. Its denizens are a study in contrasts: Eleven venture capital firms sit shoulder to shoulder with 103 single-room occupancy (SRO) units; homeless people sleep on benches while techies sit nearby sipping espresso. It’s a high-use area, and the years of activity, prosperous and otherwise, have taken their toll. Few of the wooden play structures built in the ’70s remain; those that do are rotting away despite their coating of toxic creosote. During events at nearby AT &T Park, revelers infiltrate the area and scatter trash. The curb surrounding the historic oval is crumbling. Poor drainage leaves muddy pools. The park, once the polished gem of an aspirational city, is now sad, ragged, and rusty.

As two tech booms have subsumed the area, residents have grown frustrated by the park’s neglect. The South Park Improvement Association engaged landscape architect David Fletcher, who is known for public projects like the new Summit Park near Lake Merced, and received funding from a 2012 bond measure. Fletcher collaborated closely with Toby Levy—a neighbor and designer whom he calls the park’s “power mama”—to make their revitalized vision a reality. Construction of a wholly new South Park is scheduled to begin November 1.

The due-to-be-expanded walkways will be a reinterpretation of the original English strolling garden. As tribute to the original oval curb, Fletcher has designed rounded stages for performances, weddings, and (he hopes) mariachi bands. There will be new play structures and larger grassy areas. Adjustable light poles may be equipped with modular outlets for parkgoers’ charging needs. (One thing you will not find: a plaque marking the spot where Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone are said to have come up with the idea for Twitter.) “This park has been loved to death,” Fletcher says. “The design is an interpretation of its roots.”

In its overhaul, the park also provides an object lesson in redesigning a public space with an eye to both heavy usage and historical respect. Standing outside her ground-floor office adjacent to the park, Levy surveys the surroundings. A few people are asleep on the benches; a mother supervises a toddler scrambling up one of the play structures; two men in button-down shirts stand on the grass, laptops in hand. Above, a drone buzzes by before crashing into the trees. “We don’t want to transform the park—we want to update it,” says Levy. “I don’t want it to be prissy. I still want it to have some toughness to it.”

Read more New Rules of Design coverage here.

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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